By David Miller
In a small, two-car garage of an early 20th-century home in Tuscaloosa, a retired Marine officer is immersed in a new hobby: storytelling.
But there are no pens, paper or voice recorders, only a few pictures, tables and pounds of molded clay in various stages of development.
Retired Col. Lee Busby spent 31 years as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps and completed tours in Iraq, North Africa and Eastern Europe before retiring in 2013.
Busby now spends his time shaping and sculpting clay busts to honor Alabama’s fallen military heroes. His latest project has united him with a fellow Marine at the other end of the career spectrum: 2nd Lt. Steven Arango, a second-year law student at UA.
The pair are working to honor former Marine and CIA paramilitary officer George “Alexi” Whitney, who was killed in combat on Dec. 18, 2016, in Afghanistan, with a bronzed bust of his likeness. Arango hopes to have the bust placed at Whitney’s alma mater, Bates College.
“I’m an old retired Marine, and Steven’s just getting started, but the ‘Marine Corps mafia’ around town is close, and we got to know each other,” said Busby, a UA alumnus. “He’s a young fella full of energy and has a lot of great ideas.”
Once the clay work is completed, Whitney’s bust will be bronzed at UA’s foundry on campus, where his three previous works have been cast.
Arango spent a semester at Bates College, a small liberal arts college in Lewiston, Maine, before finishing his undergraduate degree at Newberry College in South Carolina and eventually enrolling at UA. He became interested in Whitney’s story and conceptualized the project after reading a New York Times story about CIA paramilitary officers that had been killed in combat.
“I saw the story and felt an immediate passion,” Arango said. “God played another hand in this.”
Arango is a history buff – books, video documentaries and anecdotes from veterans like Busby – and, similar to his Marine counterpart, occupies his free time with passion projects to honor and serve military veterans. Arango previously spearheaded a successful project at UA to create a parking space and special parking privileges for recipients of the Purple Heart, a military award earned by men and women who’ve been injured during combat.
“Any chance I get, I want to help and honor veterans because I think it’s the right thing to do,” Arango said. “Overall, this project reinforces the idea that there are so many good people out there. It’s really encouraging when you send a random email to a person who has no idea who you are, and they’re open to anything I need. They have no connections to Tuscaloosa, Alabama or the school, but they’re a Marine or a soldier and just want to help. The process is amazing.”
Arango said Whitney was a “Marine’s Marine,” an apt designation for a recon officer with high levels of diverse specialized training. Arango’s motivation to honor Whitney grew when he began communicating with Whitney’s former lacrosse and football teammates and fellow Marines.
“Capt. Whitney was someone everyone looked up to,” Arango said. “All of his teammates said, ‘we followed Whitney.’ He excelled in sports, graduated cum laude, then wanted to serve his country. He could have gone and made a million dollars on Wall Street. He could have done a million other things.”
Arango and Busby collaborate like one would expect of Marines – they’re task oriented, persistent and move quickly. Arango, who started the project a little over a month ago, gathers information and handles fundraising and public relations; Busby hunkers down in his garage, transforming 50-pound packages of clay into incredibly detailed monuments.
Their interactions provide Arango opportunities to learn from Busby.
“Anyone that’s ever served, whether it’s four years or 30 years, has unique experiences,” Arango said. “All those stories can help you become a better leader, and they’re just awesome stories. Some are funny, some will make you cry, but they all have a unique aspect a lot of non-military stories just don’t have.”
The “Hard Part”
Busby has finished three busts, including that of Johnny Micheal Spann, an Alabama native and former CIA paramilitary officer who was the first American killed in combat during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The bust was unveiled before Spann’s parents, Johnny and Gail, at the UA Office of Veteran and Military Affairs in November 2016.
The unveiling was the first time the Spanns had seen the finished bust, but Johnny had met with Busby a handful of times throughout the process to deliver photos and offer recommendations about Johnny Micheal’s features.
These meetings are important for Busby to craft an accurate likeness, but they’re challenging for family members, he said.
“If you’re sculpting Marines or someone killed in combat, you’re doing it from usually five or six photos that the family can put together, all of them from different ages, lighting and gestures on the face,” Busby said. “Johnny came down six different times, and we brought in Mike Spann’s daughter because she had a jaw line similar to her dad, and we were having trouble getting that.
“It’s emotionally very tough work. They’re incredibly brave, and when that image is undeniably them, you know it, they know it. And when that happens, you generally see a smile, laughter and some tears.”
Whitney’s mother, Caryn, plans to meet Busby and Arango in person soon. She said she’s apprehensive to see her son’s likeness, even at an early stage.
“Everyone that knew George has said how caring and protective he was,” she said. “Obviously, I have pictures and memories, but it stirs up all the emotions over and over again. Seeing [the bust] will bring back a lot of those memories.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.